And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?
Jerusalem, by William Blake, 1808
Jalapur Dai, 1857
He woke into choking darkness. Memories flooded in where no sight was possible: the battle, the river, his wounds, the temple, the woman, how she took him and drained him of everything. His seed, his blood, his thought.
Terror set his body in motion. At first he felt fixed like an insect set in tar, but slowly his desperate writhing loosened its hold and he began to claw at what held him. Soil, sandy and warm. Sobbing, smothering, fighting, he emerged from where he had laid, a shallow grave, into the blue dusk.
Insects keened around him. Above his head, beyond the black branches of leafless trees, swallows circled in lazy feasting before they made their way to their night nests. The dusty smell of earth was in his nostrils, the taste in his mouth, gritty and sour.
He groaned as he crawled out of the hollow and onto dry, hard-baked ground. He could hear the river close by, and suddenly a thirst overcame him. A need like nothing he’d ever felt before. As he wobbled to his feet, his skin itched and stretched around his flesh. He expected to feel a pain in his thigh where the first bullet had hit him, and a second in his side. There was no pain. There was nothing but the thirst.
He stumbled towards the sound of the river, ploughing through the dry brush, batting it aside with his outstretched arms. As his feet began to sink into the wetter soil of the riverbank, he fell to his knees and crawled to the water’s edge, wading in like an animal, on all fours, lowering his face to the water mindless of the disease and the corpses that regularly floated along its current.
The cool water filled his mouth, washing away the dirt and grit, but as he began to drink his stomach seized and revolted. Cramps tore through his gut and he retched the water back up, into the river.
It’s just dehydration, he told himself. Drink slowly, warm the liquid on the way down. He sat back on his haunches and, with cupped hands brought the water up to his lips, sipping it and letting the rest wash over his itching skin.
It made no difference. Moments later he was back on all fours, vomiting up the water and, along with it, glouts of black tarry ooze. The cramps racked his body, and he retched until he was sure it would tear him apart. With this bout he voided his gut as well. Kneeling in the tepid water, soiling himself as his stomach rid itself of everything.
Slowly the cramps died away. Calum lurched to his feet and waded out further into the river, feeling the cooler currents slide around his legs washing away the filth.
He was sick, he thought. He must be. But where was the fever? Even in the colder water, he felt no chill. And his side, where was his pain? He shrugged out of his tunic and let it drift away in the water, twisting sideways and pulling up his undershirt to look at the wound. The shirt was rusty with blood, but his skin beneath it was completely unbroken. Still the thirst gnawed away at him like a nest of ants in his throat.
A small splash sounded to his right, and he turned to see an older woman in a sari stooping to rinse a metal plate out in the shallows. He would go to her and make himself understood. He would find out where the hell he was and get back to the nearest garrison. God, he thought as he waded back to the edge and towards her, perhaps they would think he had deserted like a coward?
The woman looked up as he splashed through the water. She quickly stood and, glanced around in fear.
“Please,” Calum called. “Please, don’t be frightened” He held his open palms out in front of him to show her that he was unarmed. “I need help.”
McNeill watched her try to bolt, but her legs seemed not to want to oblige her. He had never, he mused, noticed how much women were like startled deer. Then, just as he completed the thought, she tore up the side of the bank, scrabbling at the scrub to climb it. Her bare feet could gain no purchase; they pushed helplessly into the crumbling soil. The metal rings at her ankles tinkled as she tried again and again to find a foothold. The metal rang in Calum’s ears like an eerily familiar sound.
He could not remember running towards her, but in an instant he was behind her, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her away from the bank. He felt the bare warm flesh of her belly under his hands, and the sinuous way her muscles moved beneath her skin as she struggled.
“No…no… please don’t be frightened,” he pleaded, wrestling her body around to face him. “Sh-h…no…no.”
As her dark eyes locked with his in the gloom of early evening, she stopped struggling. A pitiful bleat rose in her throat, like a terrified lamb. Her throat, dark-skinned and plump. At the side a rapid pulse glinted under her sweat-wet skin in the dying light. It sounded like the river: a hissing rush, but one of a different timbre. Here, here was what would quench his killing thirst. There, beneath her cinnamon skin. Her neck smelled of sour fear and the sweet spices she’d been cooking with as he pressed his face into the crook. As his lips touched her warmth, he felt a surge of bestial lust. His cock sprang rigid against her belly. Thirst, hunger, lust. All were one. And all could be satisfied with one small bite.
His teeth tore into her tender flesh. He felt it resist a moment, and then yield beneath the pressure. His cock twitched and erupted against her inert body just as a scorching stream of her blood flooded his open mouth.
Body shuddering, testicles seizing, sending bolts of pure lighting up his shaft, Calum McNeill drank as if he might never drink again. The rich, buttery gore hummed like a living thing as it slid down his throat, singing its way into his veins, quelling his fear, soothing his cramps, bringing his body alive to the night.
It was only later, when he let her limp frame slip into the water, that he found he had no words for what he had done, and no name for what he had become.
* * *
It took McNeill three years to get back to England, almost every mile of it overland. Up through Rajputana, across Baluchistan, through Kirman in Persia, north to Mesopotamia, and into Anatolia and through the Ottoman Empire.
He learned as he went, coming to understand who he was, and what he was, how to survive the days, and take advantage of the night. And all the time, in whatever hole or crevice of rock he could find to sleep in, he dreamed of home. Of cool rains and green grass, of mist and fog, and frosty nights.
The pleasure of draining a body until its heart stopped never left him, but he discovered that he didn’t need to kill. He could take what he needed to sustain himself and go on. The closer he got to home, the more he realized that he couldn’t go back to Argyll. Only great cities teaming with life could provide refuge for his habit, and only wealth could provide the means by which to make himself truly invisible.
When Calum McNeill disembarked at the docks in Limehouse, East London, he carried 28 rubies and 32 sapphires the size of quail’s eggs. After a day’s sleep in a drainage pipe, he went to Hatton Gardens and made himself a very rich man.